Stephen King

A Review of Stephen King’s “If It Bleeds”

Four New Novellas

“If It Bleeds” Book Cover
“If It Bleeds” Book Cover

It seems that Stephen King is infatuated with the number four. Ever since publishing Different Seasons in the early ’80s, every time that King publishes a novella collection, you can be guaranteed that it will contain exactly four new stories. King’s latest book, If It Bleeds, is no different. This is a collection of four novellas, though the first two stories in the book are perhaps short enough to be considered novelettes more so than novellas, and the titular story “If It Bleeds” is long enough to be almost a short novel. Suffice to say, If It Bleeds seems to be playing loosey-goosey with the concept of what makes a novella a novella. Still, it’s four stories and we all know that King likes that number. Perhaps there’s a synergy to it.

However, the more important question is … is If It Bleeds any good? Notably, it contains a story about Holly Gibney, a character from King’s Bill Hodges Trilogy and the stand-alone novel The Outsider. (In fact, “If It Bleeds,” the story, is a sequel to The Outsider, though it is missing at least one of its major characters.) That story is probably enough to get even a fence-sitting King fan to want to read this book. Alas, I found that most of the stories in this collection, save for the final tale “Rat,” to be either subpar or mediocre by King’s standards. While there are no stories in If It Bleeds that are all out terrible, they seem to have King to be running mostly on autopilot. (There’s a part of me that, when faced with reading a recent mediocre King story or novel, wishes the guy would retire. With more than 60 books in his published docket, he should feel that he no longer owes readers anything.)

Since it is kind of the “go-to” story of the batch, let’s begin with “If It Bleeds.” While there’s a supernatural angle to the novella, would I be spoiling anything to say that it hews a little too closely to the plot of The Outsider? As such, it seems to be a rather watered-down sequel. That said, I suppose it’s nice to finally have a Gibney story where she is, more or less, the sole heroine of the tale — not sharing the limelight with male characters that would keep her neuroses in check. It is nice to see her growing as a character, and one hopes that King will return to the well, so to speak. However, it would be nice, too, if King could figure out new ways to include her in a story that doesn’t involve serial killers and shape-shifting monsters. “If It Bleeds” is just okay as it is — though it should be noted that the majority of the story takes place in December 2020 and was written long before the pandemic, so it’s weird to read a story set in the recent past that doesn’t involve lockdowns and such. There was no way that King could have read the future, but there’s also no reason why the story couldn’t have easily taken place in December 2019.

The first two stories in this collection are the weakest links. “Mr. Harrigan’s Phone” is a yarn about a young boy who works for a wealthy industrialist. When the latter dies, the former slips a first-generation iPhone into his suit jacket at the funeral and goes home to call the number. While Mr. Harrigan doesn’t pick up, per se, there are circumstantial things that happen to those who bully this young boy that will make the reader wonder if justice is being meted out beyond the grave. The problem with this tale is that it isn’t conclusive, and because it isn’t, it’s hard to feel any real sense of shivers or horror from it. Similarly, “The Life of Chuck,” which follows, simply succeeds as little more than an experiment told in three acts. Essentially, it is three short stories grafted together. However, the stories in and of themselves are a little dull and get duller as the “story” progresses. It’s a misfire — and all based on a Christopher Walken gag.

This leaves us with “Rat,” which, too, is a bit slight, but comes closest to having that feeling of dread in a Stephen King story that he did so well with during the late ’70s and early-to-mid ’80s. The piece is about a writer who seems to be unable to complete a novel, but who gets a crackerjack idea for a Western novel that requires him to go into seclusion to finish it. A rat is involved. That’s all I’ll say because it is mostly a character study more than anything else, but it does have a twist ending to it — even if it does feel a little rote by King’s standards. It’s a disarmingly good read, and even if the ending is a tad bit tragic it does make you feel good. (At least for me, as I’m a writer and can relate to everything this character winds up going through, especially writer’s block.)

All in all, If It Bleeds has two meh stories, one that is just okay, and one that is almost good. This is a low batting average for a Stephen King novella collection, though, I must admit, most of his books were read by me as a teenager, so it may just be that my mind is making me think that other novella collections were much more successful than this. I’m also not sure how the black cat fits in with the collection’s cover art — did I miss something? — so perhaps even the publisher was reaching in terms of making this saleable. The book is worth reading if you’re a fan of Gibney, as even as though hers is just passable as a story, it’s good to see her as a leading character for once.

All in all, If It Bleeds isn’t a total waste, but it is merely a shadow of King’s other novella collections. I could say that his fans deserve better, but all I’ll just say is the man definitely deserves a break. He’s been writing non-stop since the early ’70s, and if retirement is in King’s future — well, he’s left us a lot to chow down on. If It Bleeds is not up to snuff, but if you’re okay with that, you’re going to have an entertaining time of things at the very least. At least, as King ages, he hasn’t lost the ability to make you care about his work. Even if it’s not so great.

Stephen King’s If It Bleeds was published by Scribner on April 21, 2020.

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You may also be interested in the following review: Stephen King’s The Institute.

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Zachary Houle

Zachary Houle

Book critic by night, technical writer by day. Follow me on Twitter @zachary_houle.